Nobby Stiles: The ‘toothless fella’ who meant so much to fans

Nobby Stiles’ dancing is one of the defining images of England’s 1966 World Cup victory – he jigged around the perimeter of the Wembley pitch, false teeth pulled out, red socks pulled down, tightly gripping the Jules Rimet Trophy in his raised left hand.

Stiles, who has died aged 78 after a long illness, endeared himself to an entire nation with those impulsive, now iconic, post-match celebrations.

And that feeling is not limited to the generation lucky enough to witness his country’s finest football moment first hand.

“Kids of my grandkids’ age, they come up to me and go: ‘Hey, you, you’re the fella with no teeth who danced round Wembley, aren’t you?’,” he told the Guardian newspaper in 2002. 

“In a way, you end up belonging to everyone.”

Earlier in that glorious summer of 1966, England’s enforcer was not unanimously popular. Not with the supporters, not with the media, not with the Football Association.

Eventually, the one-time Catholic altar boy won over the critics who were far from enamoured with his combative style.

But the modest Mancunian – a kind, warm and unassuming family man off the pitch, rather contradictory to his on-field persona – will be forever remembered as a national hero.

Born Norbert Peter Stiles on 18 May 1942, in Collyhurst – a post-industrial, damaged suburb to the north of Manchester city centre – he realised his childhood dream by joining his beloved Manchester United as an apprentice in November 1959.

“My father Charlie was an undertaker in the area we lived and when we got the call to go to Old Trafford to sign my contract, he said: ‘Jump in son and I will take you down there.’ Now ‘jump in son’ meant in his hearse,” Stiles remembered.

The 5ft 6in full-back was handed his first-team debut a year later, though only after being sent for an eye test by United manager Matt Busby, who was concerned about the number of mistimed tackles made by the teenager.

Fitted with jam-jar spectacles off the pitch, and thick contact lenses on it, Stiles’ eye for a tigerish tackle instantly improved.

Then Busby had the vision to make a brave tactical decision which would change the trajectory of Stiles’ career.

The Scot’s dilemma was this: he needed an energetic half-back (defensive midfielder in modern parlance) to break up the opposition attacks and feed his forward line of Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law.

Stiles fitted the bill.

He became the fulcrum of the United side which went on to win the 1964-65 First Division title, eventually catching the eye of England manager Alf Ramsey as he tried to mastermind the host nation’s World Cup assault the following year.

Like Busby, Ramsey knew he had to maximise the talents of Charlton. Like Busby, Ramsey turned to Stiles.

Stiles made his England debut against Scotland at Wembley in April 1965, cementing his place over the next 12 months with a series of zealous performances.

But his aggressive ball-winning technique did not please the purists in the press, even during the 1966 World Cup.

“I got slaughtered in the papers, absolutely slaughtered,” Stiles said.

“My job was to win it, give it to Bobby and let him get on with it. The criticism never put me off.”

That criticism was not only from journalists, though. Even the FA did not like the balding midfielder’s destructive manner.

After receiving a retrospective booking following the final group game against France – for a robust challenge on Les Bleus rival Jacques Simon – the governing body demanded Ramsey drop Stiles for the quarter-final against Argentina.

Ramsey refused.

“I was a liability, they said,” Stiles recalled.

“Alf told them he’d resign if he couldn’t pick who he wanted. He was prepared to resign in the middle of a World Cup over me. I never found that out until he had died. What a man.”

Ramsey’s resistance was vindicated. Not only did Stiles help see off a hostile Argentina side – furiously described as “animals” by the usually polite Ramsey – he then nullified Portuguese superstar Eusebio in the semi-final as England reached the Wembley showpiece.

“Alf always called me by my full name of Norbert. Just before the Portugal match he took me to one side and said: ‘Norbert, I want you to take Eusebio out,'” Stiles said.

“I replied: ‘Do you mean for the game Alf, or for good?'”

Eusebio might have survived, but Portugal didn’t. And the rest is etched in English sporting history.

Tenacious, aggressive, dirty – descriptions all given to Stiles’ style. After all, he did not earn his ‘Toothless Tiger’ nickname for no good reason.

But dismissing Stiles as merely an enforcer would be a gross misjudgement.

“I remember asking Sir Alf once about his 1966 World Cup team,” former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said.

“He says he had five world-class players and Nobby was one of them. A great reader of the game – Bobby Charlton always mentions that, a marvellous reader of the game – influenced the team, could tackle, could pass.”

While Stiles will forever be remembered for his influential part in England’s triumph, he will also remain a hero in his home city of Manchester.

Stiles made almost 400 appearances for the Red Devils between 1960 and 1971, helping them win two league titles and – more notably – the European Cup in 1968.

Nobby Stiles
Stiles, alongside George Best and Bobby Charlton, helped United beat Benfica at Wembley to become European champions for the first time

He remains one of only three Englishmen, alongside Charlton and former Liverpool player Ian Callaghan, to win both the World Cup and European Cup.

After leaving Old Trafford, he ended his playing days with brief spells at Middlesbrough and Preston North End, before moving into coaching at Deepdale.

However, his managerial career failed to match the same success he enjoyed as a player.

The low times that followed his retirement from football and unsuccessful foray into management culminated in thoughts of suicide as he drove his car down the M6 motorway early in 1989.

“Everyone remembers you for the good times but obviously people have bad times as well, everybody, not just me,” Stiles told BBC Sport in 2003.

“You have to go through things – it is the only way you gain experience.

“The time I had in management was all part of learning and all part of life. In my case it made me realise I was no good at it.”

While Stiles felt he had nothing left to offer in management, others saw an opportunity to maximise his talents – namely a wealth of football experience and a trait of being refreshingly honest.

United invited him back as youth team coach in 1989, nurturing the likes of Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, David Beckham and Nicky Butt – a player who reminded Stiles much of himself – from the academy to the first team.

Known for being vocal on the pitch, he became a big hit on the after-dinner speaking circuit, regaling attentive punters with dressing-room tales before deteriorating health eventually took him out of the public eye.

One common story revolved around the simple instruction he used to be given by Busby before every match: “Norrie, let him know you’re there in there first five minutes.”

It was not meant to be a pleasant introduction.

But the likeable Stiles, who once said he wanted to be “remembered as a happy person”, has left a more positive lasting impression on millions of English football fans.

BBC Sports.

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